Monday, March 13, 2006

Looking, Reading

If you want to read about Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids, scroll down

Poets looking for proof of their utility to the rest of the world might be cheered by considering the effect of their absence upon Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation, Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress at California College of the Arts’ Wattis Insitute. Ugly to the ughth degree, Hirschhorn’s maze of camouflage and theoretical afflatus, replete with don’t-eat-the-brown-acid art-school touches like dissembled mannequins and toy soldiers, is occasionally ugly in a profound and moving manner. One wall features shelf after shelf of globes from which camouflage excrescences bulge; on one wall-map camouflage has, à la The Blob or a nanotech “Grey Goo” apocalypse, taken over North and South America. The mannequins, too, seem afflicted by this cancer, hemorrhaging camouflage from their skulls or torsos. But the most grating and, in the end, suffocating aspect of this installation, is the text—an essay by the erstwhile philosopher Marcus Steinweg—that Hirschhorn has cut and pasted in fonts of various sizes and in fragments designed, it seems, to empty the language of all but a few crumbs of intelligibility. Différance and cogito and uebermensch and, um, fragments of sentences about Deleuze and Lacan and Badiou and Agamben and Scooby Doo, no Kristeva or Cixous or Judith Butler of course. These are all thinkers, mind you, who I read and think about and take seriously enough to dislike the ways in which they have been reduced to, well, a fashion, a gesture, flourish, a screen or camouflage for who-knows-what velleities utopian or dystopian or both. It makes one scared of the invisible and subterranean complicities that might underlie the work I take seriously and believe in. For Derrida, one of the things that announces, as he says, “the death of the civilization of the book” and its metaphysical accompaniment, is an inflation and emptying out of language, “a convulsive proliferation of libraries”—the image of which, Hirschhorn has certainly given us.

Hirschhorn likes Deleuze—he’s designed monuments to the philosopher— and his show reminds me of an important distinction that I came across the other day when reading Deleuze, who has often been accused, by me even, of a kind of irresponsible glorification of insanity and naive primitivism which is unrealistic at best and dangerous at worst. What is to distinguish Deleuze’s “cosmic” deterritorializing, his liquidation of the individual, of the self, of relationship to place and memory and experience, from the operations of global capital? The following quote explains: “Sobriety, sobriety: that is the common prerequisite for the deterritorialization of matters, the molecularization of material, and the cosmicization of forces. Maybe a child can do that. But the sobriety involved is not necessarily the becoming of the child, quite the contrary; the becoming-mad involved is not necessarily the becoming of the madman, quite the contrary. . . Thus the problem of the artist is that the modern depopulation of the people results in an open earth, and by means of art, or by means to which art contributes. Instead of being bombarded from all sides in a limiting cosmos, the people and the earth must be like the vectors of a cosmos that carries the off; then the cosmos will be art.” In this, Hirschhorn might overshoot the mark, and produce an undifferentiated glop rather than vectors of escape.

Hirschhorn might have done to collaborate with, if not a different philosopher, then with a poet—poets being those who know the utopian genre, its temptations and dangers, so well. Joshua Clover’s long-awaited (here at least) The Totality for Kids also knows very well the pleasures of the textual. It’s one of the most citational books I can think of: the title of the book is a quote (from Raoul Vaneigem), the titles of the poems are often quotes, the poems themselves are filled with citations from Apollinaire and Benjamin and Marx and Joy Division and Lettrist and Situationist-texts, “filling / The April air with silver quotation marks,” “under the strict surveillance of quotation marks. . .” The most prevalent source authors here are Benjamin and the various writers of the Situationist International and its predecessor group, particularly the “Formulary for a New Urbanism” of Ivan Chtchetglov, of whom Guy Debord writes “he transformed cities and life merely by looking at them. In a single year he discovered enough material for a century of demands; the depths and mysteries of urban space were his conquest. . .” Chtchetglov, along with others, merits a number of excellent elegies in this book, elegies which are also eulogies and which cause the book to hover between the sense of potentialities lost and potentialities to come.

So, full as it is with the writing of writers, Totality is as much a book about cities, chiefly Paris, as it is a book about citations-- a book about books, a city of books and a book of cities. As Clover writes it, “a copy of the city in the library and another in the ether. Indeed, the cities-for-texts metaphor field is one this book’s most insistent tropes; you could replace city with poetry, or make a similar series of substitutions, and the essential drive of these poems would be about the same.

All in all, I’m wild about Totality; it has shown itself well worth the decade-long wait. Perhaps what I think is the most remarkable thing about this book is its insistent location in the sensorium—in colors, textures, sex, jokes, painkillers, friendship, music and fun and the commingling in the mind—all things the all-too-frequent abandonment of which by everyday life poetry can be measure of. At the same time, Totality refuses to ignore the provenance of these pleasures, their implication in a system of exploitation and misery: “beneath it the gear rooms of the calendar where tiny cracks have been discovered in every hour time has started to trickle staunched with grease and sweat a shudder a sadness at waking.” Joshua and his collaborators are smart enough and have spent enough time thinking about capital to know that there are qualitative differences in these kinds of sensual experiences—some that are part of the problem and some that are part of the solution and some that just are: “many systems to put those dreams there inside her amphitheatrical skull operated by people known as affect workers like you and me and Drew Barrymore. We help people feel certain ways and are paid a living wage plus the little bit extra called the hook or the sting—a small but pleasant feeling like tiny holographic version of meeting the president.”

What I’m getting at here is that this book, like much of my favorite poetry of the present moment, is visionary without being theological or without, that is, a loss of critical power. Here I’m referencing my other favorite Joshua’s schema of a week ago, where he attempted to distinguish between A-negativity and criticality/ B-romantic-expressionism and / C-romantic-visionary poetry. Although I think there’s usually one tendency that’s more apparent than the others, I think there has always been a good deal of poetry in which A and C are part of the same essential thrust—poetry that is decreative as much as it is visionary, and without any of the didacticism which might sometimew accompany such a project. Joshua’s book is one more fine addition to this tradition.

1 comment:

CLAY BANES said...

And it's got an index. Huzzah.